Sustainability has never been more in vogue. Are you on a mission to overhaul your buying habits and looking for eco-friendly swaps? If you find the eco-claims made by brands utterly confusing, you are not alone. It seems as though most brands have marked their products as green, eco, bio, zero-waste or sustainable.
Yet, you don’t know who to believe.
That's because you are being greenwashed.
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the act of “making people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is” (Cambridge Dictionary).
This can be achieved by carefully constructed eco-claims communicated through marketing campaigns. An example is when a product claims to be “all-natural”, when in fact it contains potentially harmful ingredients. This can be difficult to spot, especially when the claims sound so believable.
Why is greenwashing a problem?
Greenwashing comes in many shapes and forms. Companies have clearly realised the increased demand for sustainable and eco-friendly products. Sometimes it isn't necessarily malicious intent by brands to mislead the customer. It can simply be a lack of awareness. But more often than not, greenwashing is the result of carefully planned PR and marketing.
Greenwashing is a serious issue. It makes consumers more skeptical and untrusting even of the brands that are genuinely making an effort to be more ethical and sustainable. It misleads consumers into unintentionally making the unsustainable choice, and accidentally harming the environment. It also causes a lack of consumer confidence.
Is greenwashing legal?
Sadly in the UK, it is perfectly legal to manipulate consumer psychology with marketing tactics that portray products as more eco than they really are. Brands can do that by using unverifiable claims (e.g. all-natural), or by not disclosing potentially harmful ingredients - all perfectly legal.
Here are some common greenwashing tag lines we have seen:
“Our plastic containers are 100% recyclable”
Newsflash! Recyclable only means the packaging has the potential to technically get recycled, not that it will get recycled. Yes, plastic is possibly the most widely-recycled material worldwide, but only 9% of the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic produced to date is recycled. You guessed it right, the rest ends up in the landfill and oceans. By labelling packaging as 100% recyclable, companies shift the onus to consumers, knowing full well that their packaging will mostly end up polluting the planet.
“Our products are all-natural and chemical-free."
There is no way to verify the “all-natural” claim unlike organic, vegan or cruelty-free. Poison can also be all-natural and plant-derived. That doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
We have seen the "chemical-free" buzzword make a frequent appearance in recent years. There is no such thing as chemical-free. The human body is made up of chemicals. Water is a chemical, and so is oxygen. Clearly, chemical-free is not a claim that you should trust when looking for safe and eco-friendly products.
"Our products are zero-waste"
That would be true if they didn’t make, sell and ship products at all. Zero-waste does not just refer to end of life packaging waste of the product as the consumer sees it. There is waste, pollution, carbon emissions and burning of natural resources involved in sourcing, production, packaging, warehousing, spoilage and shipping - all behind the scenes!
We recently saw a supposedly “sustainable” cleaning brand, whose products are sold exclusively in single-use packaging, promoting its products as zero-waste on the premise that plastic is 100% recyclable. The irony! They've recently thrown in "chemical-free" buzzword in the mix, but that's another story altogether.
"Our products are eco-friendly because our name says so"
Brands have used this technique for decades, just adding an “eco” prefix to the name and a green leaf, that must mean that they have gone the extra mile to improve the brand’s overall environmental impact. Not the case. We've always held the opinion that it should be illegal to label products "eco" if they come in single-use plastics.
"We have a special sustainable line"
What does that make the rest of their products, not sustainable? Most fast fashion, high-street brands are guilty of this. While most of their products are planned for obsolescence, introducing a small expensive sustainable line is merely an effort at improving the company’s brand image.
How can you detect greenwashing?
We'll be honest. Brands are getting better at it, making it even more challenging for consumers to detect when they are being tricked. We recommend:
Read the fine-print - check if a product claims to be ‘all-natural’ but the ingredients often don’t match up with the claims
Don’t trust marketing slogans - instead, look for recognised 3rd-party accreditations and certifications such as Vegan Society (no animal ingredients), Leaping Bunny (cruelty-free, not tested on animals) or FSC (Forest Stewardship Council for paper from responsibly managed forests).
Beware of branding - packaging and branding that looks ‘eco’ may be misleading when you look at the label. The most common case is single-use plastic packed products labelled as eco or green.Also, just because they use a brown, raw colour palette, doesn't make the product eco.
Understand what a company means by ‘sustainable’ - are they talking about their packaging, manufacturing processes, the product itself, the ethical sourcing, carbon footprint or ingredient safety?
But it's not all gloomy. Fortunately, consumers have become savvier and are keen to support ethical and sustainable brands (like Spruce refillable cleaning).
Here's to a greener, cleaner planet.
Blog written by Isobel Clark. Image courtesy of Runze Shi on Unsplash.